Thursday, September 30, 2021

Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness: Summary and Rating

 
I liked the game, but I never felt like I was "making the rules."
      
Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness
United States
Sierra On-Line (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and Windows
Date Started: 5 August 2021
Date Ended: 24 September 2021
Total Hours: 24 (two characters)
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
Summary
A good sequel to a good series, Shadows follows the adventure of the blond hero (the same character as in the three previous games, importable if you have a save) in the land of Mordavia, which draws upon eastern European themes like vampires, werewolves, Domovoi, and Rusalki. There's also a hefty dose of Lovecraftian-style mythology. The player navigates the character around a series of screens and interacts with objects, NPCs, and the environment through a simple point-and-click interface. Puzzles tend to be on the easy side but are still fun, with different solutions for the different character classes. Combat, revamped for this title, looks like it was inspired by Karateka but doesn't play as smoothy. The CD version, published in 1994, fixes most of the bugs in the original and adds professional voice acting to the NPCs; the first game that I've played that was fully voice-acted. 

***
   
At some point, I lost my enthusiasm for replaying Shadows of Darkness as a fighter and wizard. I might eventually do it--at least before Quest for Glory V in a few years--but for now I wasn't interested in following the script another two times with slightly different puzzles. It was actually one of the game's strengths that served as a kind of "breaking point": the antwerp puzzle. I quite like the new puzzle interface and the various things that the authors did with it. But some of the puzzles, particularly the antwerp one, aren't fun four times in a row. After I screwed it up a few times on my fighter replay, I thought ahead to the door puzzle and the potion puzzles and running around chasing the Leshy and wading through the damned swamp again, and I decided it wasn't in the (tarot) cards.
     
That isn't meant to be an indictment of the game. I don't think it would be fair to ask any game to hold interest for three immediate replays. I do think that Shadows is the least "speedrunnable" of the series, but again that isn't a criticism. Good plots and puzzles take more time.
    
This NPC was creepier after she was cured of vampirism.
    
For the most part, everything that people enjoy about Quest for Glory is here in Shadows: Interesting use of historic themes, memorable NPCs, puzzles that are more fun than challenging, and different experiences for the four classes. Although the initial release was apparently a buggy mess, you wouldn't know it from the perspective of a modern player playing the final version. It even makes reasonably good use (as much as the series ever does) of its RPG elements. Certain tasks are unachievable until you grind your attributes or skills, and fighting gets notably easier as the game progresses.
    
While it will rate relatively high against other games of the era, in some ways (and perhaps in the final rating), it is my least favorite of the Quest for Glory titles. I say that knowing that for many fans, Shadows is the best of the series. There are just a lot of small ways that it didn't work well for me or didn't seem quite as original as its predecessors. In particular, I wish the authors had gone all-in on a darker theme and curbed some of the goofiness inherent in the series. To me, the game would be better off without Dr. Cranium, Punny Bones, the Leshy, and perhaps even Baba Yaga. (I hasten to add that I would replace those characters with less goofy NPCs who serve similar purposes; I'm not looking to cut content.) I would have liked to see a lot more development of vampire themes and of Katrina's character specifically. I am an absolute sucker for a sympathetic villain who makes a heroic turn, but Katrina's story just wasn't fleshed out enough, and her love for the hero should have been earned rather than automatic. 
     
1. Game World. There are a lot of positives here, including good use of eastern European themes and folklore. Quest for Glory has always excelled in setting its stories in under-represented milieus. The game has a plot, with a complex villain, which is more than you can say for two-thirds of its contemporaries. It also does a better job reacting (via its NPCs) to the hero's actions than a lot of CRPGs, including many modern ones. Lesser games would have NPCs talking about Nikolai in the present tense even after his death, or have the NPCs treat you the same way throughout the game. Thus, despite the misgivings that I just vocalized, I have to rate this one relatively high. Score: 7.
    
2. Character Creation and Development. When you're developing your skills from 250 to 400, it seems less notable than developing them from 0 to 100. (One thing that I didn't emphasize, though, is a "skill" slider that players can use if they're interested in playing more as a pure adventure game.) I do think the authors missed a lot of opportunity to make better use of the skills and attributes--simple things like lower prices in the shop or extra dialogue options for higher "Communication" or "Intelligence" values. On the other hand, there are more hard gates on skills here than in either Trial by Fire or Wages of War, both of which felt like they were ignoring the RPG aspects of the game completely, except in combat.
    
The series continues to do a reasonably good job giving a fundamentally different experience to each character class, but again perhaps not as good as the previous games in the series. Only the thief gets entirely new areas and side quests, aside from the minor stuff that the paladin does to rescue the Rusalka. Score: 5.
     
My imported fighter. These statistics are why this isn't a pure "adventure game." For some commenters' benefits, I apparently needed to show this screen more often.
     
3. NPC Interaction. This continues to be a strength. I wasn't in love with the interface, and its requirement that you click on the hero to "tell" and the NPC to "ask," and I would have liked to see the series venture into more dialogue options rather than just keywords. There doesn't feel like much role-playing going in with your interactions. But the NPCs definitely have memorable personalities, and interacting with them is vital to success in the game.
   
I was curiously indifferent to the voiced dialogue. The acting was fine--and the developers deserve credit for using professional voice actors rather than whoever was in the room, the way Origin did. But the Coles had always done such a great job writing NPCs that I never had trouble imagining appropriate voices. In some ways, I think I might have preferred to continue using my imagination. Score: 7.
    
If you remember nothing else about the game, I bet you remember this.
    
4. Encounters and Foes. The Coles always deserve credit for creating original enemies (except for the generic bats), but that doesn't mean they're always interesting. The game's enemies didn't do a lot for me, particularly the "vorpal bunnies." This is one area in which the authors could have done a better job playing with existing mythology and themes. Nezhits and todorats and such. Werewolves, perhaps--removed from the gypsies, of course, and perhaps with some grotesque spin, such as you always encounter them in mid-transition.
   
Some positives: The enemies are well-described in the manual. The spacing between foes is good. You don't feel overwhelmed by combat, but neither is it trivial. The non-combat puzzles remain strong. Score: 5.
   
5. Magic and Combat. I'll give it to the authors: they keep trying. I like the Karateka approach, but something remains off with the timing. I don't think you can really effectively time jumps and parries. You spend most of the combat advancing and getting knocked down until you're in melee range. Things are better for spellcasters and thieves (who can throw knives); both can essentially stun-lock opponents until they're out of ammo. The variety of spells works well for puzzle-solving, but in terms of combat there might as well have been just one "blast" spell. Score: 4.
   
6. Equipment. Not a strength of the series or of this game. You find weapons and armor appropriate to your class early in the game, and it never becomes an issue again. There isn't even some nice item in the shop to save for like there was in the first Quest for Glory. Everything else is for puzzles. Score: 1.  
    
7. Economy. The series has never done terribly well in this category, but at least So You Want to Be a Hero and Trial by Fire had a few things worth saving for. At least Wages of War had potions to buy. Here, you get one potion a day from Dr. Cranium and that's it. If he'd sold the potions, and offered mana and stamina ones to boot, there would be something to do with your money.
   
Then again, only the thief makes any serious money. The rest of the classes largely rely on the initial funds they get in the cave and Erana's islet for the entire game. Late in the game, you get a lot of money from the wraiths, but to little purpose. Score: 1.
   
8. Quests. The game has a compelling main quest, but with really only one outcome and essentially no player choices. There are a handful of optional side quests that allow you to role-play more effectively, like reuniting Boris and Olga, befriending the Rusalka, and burning the monastery. I don't even think you get any points for those activities, but they're a lot of fun. Score: 5.
     
Committing arson to the evil monastery was a nice side quest.
    
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I think the game accomplishes everything that could be accomplished with the point-and-click interpreter, including fixing some of the bugs in past games. The effort taken to give a textual description to everything you could possible "eyeball" is particularly admirable. I wish there had been a little more keyboard redundancy, primarily for switching between cursor commands.
   
The series continues to excel in its use of sound, including ambient sound, and musical leitmotifs. The voice acting, as noted above, is solid. While the graphics are generally well-detailed and composed, there were a few times I didn't think they were detailed enough to call attention to certain puzzle solutions. Score: 7.
   
10. Gameplay. The game world is open but a bit confining, and I don't really care for the linearity of the plot, particularly waiting for events to trigger. If things are going to happen in an order, I'd rather they happened on specific days, like in Trial by Fire, rather than based ambiguously on my own actions. The approach creates a lot of times when you're just waiting around for night to fall, or for some event to trigger on the next day. The overall length, however, is fine for the content.
   
As noted above, while the series remains extremely replayable, this is probably the least replayable entry. Score: 5.
    
That gives us a final score of 47. I'm surprised to see it higher than Wages of War, albeit by just a point, but looking over my GIMLET for that game, I can see why. I forgot how many issues I had with the interface, and that although there are more things to buy, the economy is still ruined by excessive gold. Anyway, 47 is still a strong rating (my average is about 28, and my average for the 1990s is only 33), and regardless of whatever small flaws I identified, it's generally been a joy to play and analyze.
     
Katrina throws some shade at Ad Avis. I think she could do a better job with the hair.
    
By March 1993, Computer Gaming World was offering a column called "Taking a Peek." It provided mini-reviews of current and upcoming games. The column took a look at Shadows of Darkness and deemed it "another award winning adventure." The text of the column suggests that the "review" is based mostly on promotional materials, however, and not direct gameplay experience. Scorpia got to the game the following month, and gave it a fair review, noting its numerous strengths (she particularly liked the auto combat) before spending the last half on all the technical difficulties. I didn't experience any of these, but I can imagine how frustrating it must have been. Because of those technical difficulties, she was forced to conclude that players "approach this one with extreme caution, and be sure of what you're getting."
   
But she also had the same problem I had with the ending:
    
Having worked so hard to reach this point, done all the rituals, and with the arrival of the Dark One imminent, you find that this dramatic moment is hardly more than a joke, literally. Only one physical action by your character is needed, and then it's over. Ho hum. And the banishment of the Dark One is glossed over with a little text--you don't even get to see a graphic of it! Did our art budget run short at the end of the project?
   
Modern reviews tend to rate Shadows the highest of the series, but a few authors have been more critical. Jimmy Maher makes some excellent points in a 2018 article about the supposedly "dark" setting:
    
I’ve played games which I’ve found genuinely scary; this is not one of them. It certainly includes plenty of horror tropes, but it’s difficult to take any of it all that seriously. This is a game that features Dr. Brain channeling Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a game where you fight a killer rabbit lifted out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a game where you win the final battle against the evil wizard by telling him the Ultimate Joke and taking advantage when he collapses into laughter. From the Boris Karloff imitator guarding the gates to the villain’s castle to Igor the hunchbacked gravedigger, this is strictly B-movie horror--or, perhaps better said, a parody of B-movie horror. It’s hard to imagine anyone losing sleep over this game.
      
Maher's analysis also criticizes (or at least calls attention to) the various "events" that must be triggered for the plot to move forward, noting that "it's too easy to get stuck in a cul de sac with no idea how to prod the plotting machinery into motion again." 
      
I don't know if poor initial reactions to Shadows or problems at Sierra that delayed the fifth game. In a 2003 interview, Lori Cole said that "Sierra didn't want to give us a budget or team to do [Quest for Glory V] right, so we moved on." The Coles ended up at Legend Entertainment working on a licensed title called Shannara, which most sites classify as a pure adventure game albeit with "RPG elements." In a 2012 interview, Corey Cole credited the fifth game's existence to fans' letters to Sierra. It took a couple more years and was released in 1998. 
     
It sucks that it's going to be so long before I get another Quest for Glory game to play. I wish the series, good as it is, had inspired more imitators. Then again, we are at the beginning of an era in which more interesting plots, NPCs, and puzzles became standardized within the RPG genre, and thus the need for explicit "adventure-RPG hybrids" was waning.


39 comments:

  1. "Katrina's story just wasn't fleshed out enough, and her love for the hero should have been earned rather than automatic... despite the misgivings that I just vocalized, I have to rate this one relatively high."

    QfG4 is one of those games that is sufficiently ahead of its era that you find yourself noticing ways in which it falls short of potential that virtually none of its contemporaries even came close to. The saddest version of this is when a game points out a really interesting direction that was never really followed up on.

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    1. Also (forgive me for commenting before getting to the end of the post and then finding something else to comment on), Quest for Glory V has some shortcomings (chief among them "is a PC 3D game released in 1998") but once you get to it you'll be happy to find that it has the strongest RPG credentials of the series. It actually came in for some criticism for that; in 1998 RPGs were riding high, but adventure gamers were desperate, and one of the great adventure series -- a Sierra Quest, even -- coming back to life in such an alien guise must have been a disappointment.

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    2. QFG5 does not so much have strong RPG credentials, it's more that it's almost entirely an RPG and not an adventure game any more. That doesn't mean it's a GOOD RPG though, mechanically I'd rate it pretty poorly.

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  2. "vampires, werewolves, Domovoi, and Rusalki" - the plural of "domovoi" is "domovye" ;) And while we're at it, "nezhit" is an uncountable noun, like "water". I also simply means "undead", quite literally.

    You can skip the antwerp maze by clicking on the hint button (possibly more than once, don't remember exactly).

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  3. " Shannara, which most sites classify as a pure adventure game albeit with "RPG elements." "

    As usual, they are wrong with labeling presence of a combat and characters having HP as "RPG elements". I sometimes wonder why these sites never told as that original Doom has "RPG elements". After all, Doomguy has Health and Armor parameters. And can use different weapons and strategies to kill enemies.

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    1. Yeah, Shannara is a pure adventure game, albeit with an overland map that kind of feels like but isn't an RPG.

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    2. The first Doom's review in Edge magazine mentioned how boring it was to shoot and do nothing else, and how Ultima Underworld was much better because it had things other than combat. The reviewer wanted to talk to the monsters, and because of this, he gave the game only a 7. ("Only" compared to most Doom review scores.)

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    3. If anyone is interested in reading about the development of Shannara and the role the Cole played in it, just check out Jimmy Maher's "The Digital Antiquary" from last September 19th. And, yes, it is not an RPG but an adventure (and a very good one).

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    4. I thought Doom was pretty boring compared to a good Ultima back in the day!

      And yes... funny that Jimmy just reviewed Shannara! Between his Digital Antiquarian and the Addict... we've got a serious twosome for the history of computer RPGs and offshoots.

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  4. My sense, having only played QFG I and some of IV, (but having read your takes) is that like the goldbox series, the first game was never really surpassed. Yes, some of the games did some things better, but the overall product never quite came together as well as the original did. If Corey is around, I’d be interested in his take on that.

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    1. Personally, I have always preferred QfG1 to QfG4 (and QfG1 to the rest of the series). I like the setting more - slapstick horror works better for me than slapstick fantasy - and the world is more detailed and fun to explore.

      I guess it's less of a Goldbox situation and more of a BG1 vs. BG2 discussion - different people have different opinions on which is better depending on which aspects they value more.

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    2. I suspect that a lot of people prefer QFG4 precisely because of the Katrina romance. It may be clumsy and awkward by 2020 standards, but it's pretty groundbreaking for 1993.

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    3. I agree that QFG1 remains the best. It certainly has the top rating on my sheet. But that's from an RPG addict's perspective, mind you.

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    4. It's the one that's least on rails. They all are to some extent, but that one is relatively "open" until you attempt to enter the raider camp by whatever method. But the entire game is played in a shallow bowl of a valley, like QF4, a good design for the illusion of freedom, making it the closest they ever got to QF1's lightning in a bottle.




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    5. The last time someone asked, "Which is the best (or your favorite) Quest for Glory game," I recall writing about the unique virtues of each of the games. Any of them could be "the best," depending on the player's priorities.
      QG1 gets points for setting the tone for the series, and being the first to combine adventure and CRPG. QG4 compared to QG1 is more tightly plotted, and has many more puzzles. I personally love the QG4 combat interface, which was inspired by Street Fighter II (rather than Karateka, which I've never played). But I designed and coded the QG1 combat, so I obviously have a soft spot for that. But the correct tactics in QG1 are to mash the attack button over and over, and ignore defense, so it's a poorly balanced system. :-) Obviously that wasn't my intention when I coded it.
      My personal favorites are QG2 and QG4, but I could come up with reasons why any game in the series is "the best."

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    6. “But the correct tactics in QG1 are to mash the attack button over and over, and ignore defense, so it's a poorly balanced system.”

      Oh phew, I’d thought I must be awful at combat because I couldn’t do any better than mashing.

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    7. The first (and fifth) QFG game have a standard/generic fantasy setting, and the other three have exotic settings rarely used in video games (i.e. Arabian nights, Africa, and Eastern European myth). So in my personal opinion that makes those games better.

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  5. In regard to the last paragraph about CRPGs evolving particularly in terms of puzzles, I had to glance through the spreadsheet, but I suppose we could consider Fallout (1997) as fulfilling many of the same goals. I'm not sure there's anything before that, or a whole lot since.

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    1. Dialog Puzzela. The whole adventure genre shot itself in the foot with dumb pixel hunting or moonlogic and internetacces made walkthroughs a common thing so a straight point and click adventure could be breezed through.

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    2. @Till, I would say that the immersive sims of the Deus Ex lineage in a way represent the evolution of QfG design philosophy. Both emphasize the player roleplaying their character by finding radically different solutions to obstacles that fit their character build. Only immersive sims take it a step further by giving the player a simulated gameworld with consistent rules rather than a set of pre-scripted puzzles.

      Otherwise I agree with your disagreement with the last paragraph. There are very few "pure" RPGs that reach the role-playing freedom of Quest for Glory. Apart from Fallout, I can think of Jeff Vogel's Geneforge series, West of Loathing and some recent indie games that are directly inspired by QfG - particularly, Heroine's Quest and Quest for Infamy.

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    3. The best role-playing in a CRPG is in Arcanum. It's still unmatched to this day. But there's a hopeful upcoming contender: Space Wreck.

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    4. JarlFrank... Arcanum... is this the RPGCodex and I didn't notice? ;)

      At least it's not Torment we're talking about!!!

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  6. One thing I like about the Rusalka image is the hint that the flesh is illusory. Maybe I'm wrong and it's just the art-style they use, but she seems hollow under the ribs.

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  7. Probably a wise decision to postpone it for now... Plenty of time to revisit QFG4 before the QFG5 comes to replay it as the mage... The thief and paladin aren't the only ones with unique encounters and locations...

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  8. The evil monastery screenshot could be lifted straight out of 'Monkey Island 2' or 'Day of the Tentacle'. I guess they were making concessions to their artstyle with those twisted angles and forced perspective (not common in QfG before).

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  9. They're not generic bats, they're "badders" you see - bat/spider hybrids. No, I wouldn't have noticed that either if I hadn't clicked the eye on them.

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    1. Fair enough. I didn't realize their name referred to being a spider hybrid. I just thought they were particularly bad bats.

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    2. Badder isn't to be confused with worse, which is a wolf/horse hybrid.

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    3. Hats off, best joke made here since its inception, lmao!

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    4. Best is a beast without a... what's it without again?

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    5. That was amazing. Simply amazing.

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    6. A Whitch/Bore, it's not as good as the others but I couldn't not write it.

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    7. The narrator points out that they're bat/spider hybrids once you pick up the Rusty Sword and Shield as a fighter (or paladin).

      You actually have to look at the carcasses after combat for the narrator to specifically call them Badders. (and get the best line John-Rhys Davies has said in his career, "In a bitter battle, you were better than the Badders! (You kicked some butt, too.)"

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  10. Both burntime and nomad are not really RPGs and could be easily rejected if you don't want to try them out.

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  11. Ref Jimmy Maher calling QG4, "a parody of B-movie horror," he nailed it. That's exactly the specification. Our models were films such as "Young Frankenstein" and "Abbott and Costello Meet (your choice)". Comedy horror parody was always the goal.
    One could argue that we could have had a different - and perhaps loftier - goal of making a seriously dramatic horror game, but we aren't fans of really scary horror films. Bubba Ho-Tep (which came out later) is more our speed.
    I agree that the ending could have been stronger. Not necessarily in being more serious, but it could have had more game play and animation. More time working back and forth between the game design and implementation would have improved it. But the Ultimate Joke would still have been at least one solution.
    The cancellation of Quest for Glory V was a combination of Sierra's executive management moving up to Bellevue, Washington (and downsizing the company), and a blanket move towards cutting costs. We released Quest for Glory IV in the same period as Phantasmagoria, and Ken Williams (or at least the Board of Directors) was appalled at the cost overruns on that project. This turned out possibly to be short-sighted, as Phantasmagoria went on to become Sierra's best-selling game, easily earning out its development cost.
    But the fallout from that project was that the middle managers were told they must reduce all budgets by 20%. When I heard that, I nearly had a breakdown. Quest for Glory IV was essentially unplayable in the original release. The next game needed *more* budget, not less.
    Possibly I could have negotiated on that, but it seemed impossible to make a game under those conditions. Anyway, I don't think the game cancellation had anything to do with the reaction to Quest for Glory IV. It was a cost-cutting mandate on all the games, and I wasn't in a position to get around it.

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    1. This is really interesting, Corey. Thanks for setting the record straight. I was one of those who first played the game in it's initial buggy, "unplayable" state, but I still loved it. I was absolutely gutted when I learned that 5 was cancelled.

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    2. Hi, Corey. My schedule and "to do" list started to fall apart right around the time you commented, so I apologize for taking so long to read everything. I always appreciate your comments, and thank you for elaborating and clarifying here.

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  12. What I don't like about the Wizard in this game is that zbfg bs gur vagrerfgvat hgvyvgl fcryyf sebz gur rneyvre tnzrf oneryl frr nal hfr: ol zl pbhag, yrivgngr naq gevttre ner hfnoyr bayl gjvpr; qrgrpg bayl bapr; qnmmyr, whttyvat yvtugf, naq erirefny ner arire hfrq. Naq nyy arj fcryyf va guvf tnzr ner pbzong-bayl, rkprcg tyvqr (hfrq rknpgyl bapr) naq sebfgovgr (gjvpr). Nyy va nyy guvf znxrf gur jvmneq srry engure yrff jvmneqyl, naq V erpnyy gur svsgu tnzr unf gur fnzr vffhr.

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    1. Your count is wrong. Erirefny vf hfrq jura svtugvat gur snvevrf. Whttyvat Yvtugf pna or hfrq va gur Pureabil svtug gb qvfcry qnexarff. Yrivgngr vf hfrq n ybg zber guna gjvpr va chmmyrf naq unf n ybg bs bcgvbany hfrf sbe trggvat vagb cynprf va gbja. Srgpu naq Bcra ner hfrq engure rkgrafviryl, naq Sbepr Obyg vf nyfb hfnoyr n pbhcyr bs gvzrf.

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